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Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000)

de Robert D. Putnam

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"Putnam's work shows how social bonds are the most powerful predictor of life satisfaction. For example, he reports that getting married is the equivalent of quadrupling your income and attending a club meeting regularly is the equivalent of doubling your income. The loss of social capital is felt in critical ways: Communities with less social capital have lower educational performance and more teen pregnancy, child suicide, low birth weight, and prenatal mortality. Social capital is also a strong predictor of crime rates and other measures of neighborhood quality of life, as it is of our health: In quantitative terms, if you both smoke and belong to no groups, it's a close call as to which is the riskier behavior."--BOOK JACKET.… (més)
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Social capital is the grease that keeps society moving, but over the past 30 years it has decreased. Bowling Alone is the influential book that gathered the data behind this trend and put social capital on the radar of the nation.

Social networks give rise to generalized reciprocity and trust. This is social capital. Reciprocity and trust are most useful when applied generally and not just those who have helped you in the past. Social capital allows society operate smoothly. People rely on social connections for friendships, romantic relationships, job referrals, and community and political organization. Social capital is correlated with individual happiness and with community goods such as lower crime rates.

For all the good that it causes, social capital is, like most tools, not unambiguously good. Gangs and the KKK are held together by social capital just as the PTA and Habitat volunteers are. Being gay in a close knit conservative Christian community can ruin lives. The rarely realized ideal is a society with large amounts of social capital and a large tolerance for difference, but the tensions between these tendencies are hard to reconcile.

Bowling Alone analyzes empirical data to show that social capital had been declining for 30 years (the book is copyright 2000, data from earlier). Putnam considers political participation, civic participation, religious participation, workplace connections, altruism, volunteering, and philanthropy, and perceptions of reciprocity, honesty, and trust. All measures have shown declines, from mild to dramatic. Some new trends seem to defy the decline (e.g., internet communities), but Putnam makes a compelling case that social capital is generally declining.

Consider volunteering as an example. In the US, we volunteer about twice as much as in other developed nations. Volunteering may be formal (through an organization such as United Way) or informal (house sitting for a neighbor). Over half of Americans volunteer when informal volunteering is counted. Volunteering is correlated with higher levels of philanthropic giving.

Education predicts volunteer activity; college graduates are twice as likely to volunteer. Parents volunteer the most because of their involvement with activities related to their children (e.g., school, sports teams). Community size, wealth, and family status are other predictors of volunteer activity. Americans who entertain at home are also more likely to volunteer than those who do not.

Community involvement is the most important predictor of volunteer activity. Data from 1996 shows that 73% of members of secular organizations and 55% of members of religious organizations volunteer. Only 19% of individuals not involved in organizations volunteer. Members of religious organizations tend to volunteer mostly for their church. Organizations provide volunteer opportunities for their members and act as recruitment pools.

Over the past 30 years, volunteer activity has not dropped across the board. Formal volunteering has decreased, but informal volunteering is more common. More people outside of organizations are volunteering, but they do not form long term relationships. There is a troubling generational decline with respect to volunteer activity. The "long civic generation", the generation before the Boomers, has volunteered more at every stage of life than the Boomers and Generation X is worse (although there have been indications that the Millenials may be reversing this slightly).

What is behind the declines in volunteering and other types of participation? Given the difficulty of analyzing social trends, Putnam's explanations are guesses. Up to 10% of the decline in these measures can be attributed to time and money pressures on families, up to another 10% can be explained by suburban sprawl and long commutes, and another 25% can be explained by electronic media, especially television. By far, the largest contributor generational succession. The Boomers and Generation X replace the long civic generation in numbers, but their percentage participation is comparatively abysmal. This may explain up to half of the decline in participation. Why this is occurring is an open question.

Overall, Bowling Alone was a fascinating and informative book. The quantitative information makes it a valid and credible resource. The publication of Bowling Alone prompted debate over the conclusions Putnam drew, but makes it clear that there are trends to consider, and whether they are considered good, bad, or neutral, they are worth examining. ( )
  eri_kars | Jul 10, 2022 |
I only read the intro and summary bits because it's not a well enough written book to justify wasting my time. Interesting information, too bad it's so crowded out by unnecessary and irrelevant repetition. ( )
  fionaanne | Nov 11, 2021 |
From his vantage-point in the late Nineties, Sociologist Robert Putnam persuasively argues that social and civic life in America has declined from its peak period of the twenty-five years following World War 2. The Fifties and Sixties were a time of public trust. In 1964, polls show 77% of Americans saying that “most people can be trusted”, 10% higher than during and immediately after WW2. There was a sense of shared identity and thus reciprocity tied up with engagement in community affairs. But starting in the Seventies, Americans became less and less social. This change can be seen in relation to work, informal socialization, religious participation, and many other aspects of life.

Putnam uses the concept “social capital,” which implies social networks carry value, both public and private. For example, a service club can create private friendships and also raise money for scholarships. While friendships lead people to support each other when ill or victim to other tragedies.

Putnam argues that social connection tends to bring a sense of mutual obligation. “I’ll do this for you now, in the expectation that you (or perhaps someone else) will return the favor.” When there is a widespread sense of mutual obligation and reciprocity, life goes much more smoothly. We can do things without the need for accounting who owes what. Dense ties also facilitate gossip and reputation-cultivation, which leads to trust.

So, what happened? World War 2 led to a mass of patriotism and collective solidarity that was redirected into community life. Between the war and 1960, participation in public organizations doubled. It plateaued throughout the Sixties. But participation began declining in the Seventies. American history is littered with stories of decline and fall, “declensionist narratives” that compare to a past golden age. But Putnam thinks community belonging and trust actually have truly decreased, and for the worse.

Political participation is down. Figures for voting, attending political meetings, attending rallies, working for political parties, running for office, signing petitions, and writing to the paper have all fallen. As have statistics for attending local public meetings, serving as officer of a club, and serving on a committee for a local organization.

While there are technically more NGO’s now, there are often lobbying groups with no actual members. Ones that do have members, like the AAA, often lack local chapters where members could meet. The average membership rate of national chapter-based associations has declined since the Seventies, as has PTA and club membership. Religious attendance has gone slightly up and down but mostly declined.

Union membership follows a similar path as the book’s general pattern: growth throughout the 20th century, plateau in the Fifties and Sixties, and then decline. Now, unions don’t facilitate face-to-face engagement via union hall meetings and social gatherings. Participation in national professional associations like the AMA and ADA have also fallen.

Work has increasingly become where social connections happen. It’s also where people avoid domestic stressors. But that hasn’t necessarily led to an increase in workplace communication. Friendships from work are more likely to be casual than supportive. They are as precarious as work itself: many do not retain friendships when they leave the job. Additionally, we are not able to be totally honest at work due to worker surveillance.

Informal social interactions, which Putnam dubs schmoozing, has followed the trend. Schmoozing includes dinner parties, hanging with friends, playing cards, visiting relatives, going to the bar, etc. Schmoozing was highly prevalent in the US even pre-Industrial Revolution. As Americans urbanized, friendship became more important. Rather than a single community, cities hosted a loose series of communities. But those communities are shrinking.

From the late Seventies to late Nineties, entertaining friends at home dropped 45%. Going out to see friends and having them over declined in the same period, as has going out to bars and nightclubs. Where Americans used to play team sports, they now increasingly are spectators. Family life is less social now as well, as statistics for vacationing, family dinners, attending church together, sitting and talking, and watching TV together have all fallen. Between the mid-Eighties and late Nineties, readiness to make new friends declined by a third.

Playing cards with neighbors was a popular pastime in the Fifties, but Americans are less likely to do that or spend time with neighbors. Neighborhood associations are less social now and are more political. Putnam claims that, evaluating time diary studies, days where Americans spent any time informally socializing dropped from 65% in 1965 to 39% in 1995.

Putnam argues that this fall in public life is correlated with dwindling trust. In 1965, polls show roughly 55% of Americans saying, “most people can be trusted.” That number fell to 35% in the years leading up to 2000.

What countertrends were there when he was writing this book? One trend is various small groups that lack formal membership and are more fluid. These include Sunday school classes, reading groups, prayer fellowships, self-help, hobby groups, etc. In the late Nineties, 40% of Americans were currently part of one of these. 2 out of 5 said they got help when sick from someone in one of these groups. 4 out of 5 say they help them not feel alone. Reading groups exist, and sometimes for a long time. Their prevalence slightly declined between the Seventies and Nineties.

Self-help groups have become tremendously popular. They tend to be highly specific: AA, down syndrome support, etc. The problem with these is that, while they help their members, they are bound together by weak ties. They tend to invite focus on the self and encourage coming only if you have time. They are characterized by permissiveness, so they don’t encourage community.

Social movements bring people together. They rely on and encourage social capital and networks. Solidarity anchors us in participatory cultures. But the trend with these organizations is that eventually professionalize, eschewing the grassroots for DC lobbyists.

So, it seems that social life for Americans is shrinking. Why is that? Putnam argues that the main culprits are generational shift and entertainment media. Geographical sprawl and pressures of work and money are also responsible, if less so.

By generational shift, he means that the generation who lived through World War 2 came out of it highly bonded. The victory and subsequent wealth brought Americans together in what Putnam dubs the “civic generation.” They experienced and sacrificed in this massive event together and had thus grown a sense of national solidarity.

The Baby Boomers, however, became less civic as they entered adulthood in the Seventies, which eventually became known as “The Me Decade.” Much of their culture involved rejecting the institutions of their parents. They often felt they had less in common with their neighbors, as their culture encouraged individual expression and cultivating the self. Additionally, the Vietnam War and dashing of the liberal dream in the late Sixties killed much public camaraderie and social life that was built on a patriotism.

The Boomers also grew up with television, the second main culprit of American public life’s decline according to Putnam. In the first half of the twentieth century, most entertainment was public: amusement parks, dance halls, moviegoing, etc. But as telecommunications and the entertainment industries grew, people stayed home more. Because news and entertainment became individualized, it became easier to cultivate taste. It also allowed consumers to experience entertainment privately at home.

By 1995, figures for household viewing per TV were 50% higher than in the 1950’s. As of this book’s first edition’s writing, each person averaged 3-4 hours a day. More TV sets meant watching in bedrooms rather than together as a family. According to surveys taken between 1975 and 1999, the number of people who prefer “spending a quiet evening at home” rose continually, and those same people were also highly dependent on TV entertainment. More time spent watching TV means less time doing anything else. This is why Putnam homes in on entertainment media.

Putnam shows through a series of graphs that TV watching is antagonistic to leading a social life. Those who strongly agreed that “TV is my primary form of entertainment” were:
• Least likely to write letters to friends and relatives
• Least likely to attend club meetings
• Least likely to attend church
• Most likely to give the finger to another driver
• Least likely to work on a community project
• Least likely to volunteer

Of course, TV is probably attractive to unhappy people, and isn’t necessarily the cause of that unhappiness. But it doesn’t seem to help. It is habit-forming and encourages a relaxed, drowsy, and passive state of being. The ease of watching television compared to other activities may also contribute to this phenomenon.

Putnam posits less confidently that television-watching may imitate personal connection through one’s following the fictional lives of characters and seeing familiar morning anchors.

Less significantly, decreased social life may be due to pressures at work. Though studies haven’t shown a decrease in leisure time, they have shown an increase in economic anxiety and feeling busier. Many workers now are salaried and expected to do work after getting home, meaning there are less continuous hours of leisure time than before.

Mobility and sprawl may also have contributed a minor amount to the decline in social life. As more of the population moved to suburbs, they lost leisure time to travel. They also became more individualized as less people took public transit and more relied on cars. Additionally, commercial spaces like shopping centers became social hubs, and those spaces discourage social life.

Putnam mentions that a significant jump in women joining the work force is a small contributing factor, but neither here nor there. In some ways, women working led them to socialize more, in some ways less.

While Putnam is invested in rebuilding a liberal civic America, this book is still valuable.
It leaves you with a lot to think about. While I don’t care about political participation, I am concerned with a decline in social life. It’s tempting to blame the internet for this phenomenon, but home PC use and high-speed internet had not taken off when this book was being written in the late Nineties.

One use I have of this book is something to point to when people claim the internet brings us all together. Perhaps in some perverted way it does, but one of the main reason we were all so lonely before it was because of a different entertainment media: TV!

Putnam talks about American life somewhat defined as a reaction to stifling, traditional community bonds. Thoreau and Emerson heralded the individual going against the herd, while the Pilgrims were escaping conformist religious persecution. This got me thinking: it can feel suffocating to have all of your actions scrutinized by peers or family members. Additionally, if people are only doing good because someone is watching them, how valuable really is their behavior?

While we may herald the communal life of the European commons, from what researchers have gathered, the people in those villages often hated and resented each other. There must be some ways to gain the benefits of community while maintaining priority for the individual.
Putnam spends lots of time explaining his sources and methods, which makes me trust the results he compiles. Academic reviewers seemed mostly friendly towards the book. The main critique I read surrounded the concept “social capital.” Why make networks and friendship into “capital”? One reviewer, a sociologist, argued that this is done to be taken seriously by other disciplines like economics. Also, not all connections are “capital.” Having a sibling who is an addict is just one example where this concept falls apart.

Overall this was an informative and thought-provoking read. Highly recommended. ( )
  100sheets | Jun 7, 2021 |
Very interesting and important, but too long and dry. ( )
  bederson | Dec 17, 2020 |
Amazing use of archival data and formal US survey information. I read the edition published in 2000; I wish it were being updates for 2020. Very timely issues about civic engagement. ( )
  JosephKing6602 | Sep 24, 2020 |
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''Many Americans continue to claim that we are 'members' of various organizations,'' as Putnam writes, ''but most Americans no longer spend much time in community organizations -- we've stopped doing committee work, stopped serving as officers and stopped going to meetings. And all this despite rapid increases in education that have given more of us than ever before the skills, the resources and the interests that once fostered civic engagement.'
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To Ruth Swank Putnam and to the memory of Frank L. Putnam, Louis Werner, and Zelda Wolock Werner, exemplars of the long civic generation
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No one is left from the Glenn Valley, Pennsylvania, Bridge Club who can tell us precisely when or why the group broke up, even though its forty-off members were still playing regularly as recently as 1990, just as they had done for more than half a century.
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"Putnam's work shows how social bonds are the most powerful predictor of life satisfaction. For example, he reports that getting married is the equivalent of quadrupling your income and attending a club meeting regularly is the equivalent of doubling your income. The loss of social capital is felt in critical ways: Communities with less social capital have lower educational performance and more teen pregnancy, child suicide, low birth weight, and prenatal mortality. Social capital is also a strong predictor of crime rates and other measures of neighborhood quality of life, as it is of our health: In quantitative terms, if you both smoke and belong to no groups, it's a close call as to which is the riskier behavior."--BOOK JACKET.

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